After decades of lawsuits, Sts’ailes and BC take a new path to reconciliation

The Sts'ailes First Nation and the province have put aside nearly two decades of lawsuits, at least for now, with the signing of a new reconciliation agreement.

By Grace Kennedy | April 22, 2022 |5:00 am

The province is promising to give the Sts’ailes First Nation a 167-hectare parcel of land along the Chehalis River. In return, Sts’ailes has promised to shelve a lawsuit against BC for at least five years—pausing nearly two decades of back-and-forth litigation.

The Sts’ailes First Nation has around 1,000 members, with a reserve between the Harrison River and Hemlock Valley. Sts’ailes’ traditional territory ranges from Agassiz to the the top of Harrison Lake, and includes all of that lake, the Harrison River, and a range of other water bodies. Sts’ailes, which isn’t a member of the two major StĂłêž‰lƍ treaty-negotiating bodies, has been trying to persuade the province to recognize its rights to their traditional territory for the last decade.

The process has not been without its difficulties.

In 2016, then-Chief Harvey Paul filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sts’ailes against both the province and the federal government, saying both governments had effectively stolen land from the Nation, as well as failed to recognize Sts’ailes territory and its rights. In 2017, the provincial and federal governments responded to the Sts’ailes lawsuit and questioned whether Sts’ailes had rights to the land it outlined in its claim. They also argued the Nation had failed to articulate exactly what the governments did that interfered with their right to the land.

The 2016 civil suit was an extension of one filed in 2003. It demanded that Sts’ailes be given exclusive rights to the Harrison and Chehalis fishery management areas—a contentious claim, particularly as there are other bands along the Harrison River, including Sq’Ă©wlets First Nation.

The 2003 suit was filed in retaliation after the province had sued former Chief Willie Charlie and Sts’ailes fisheries manager Kim Charlie for allegedly allowing Sts’ailes members to fish in the Harrison River despite the DFO saying it was not allowed. That lawsuit was dismissed in the summer of 2016.

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Now, Sts’ailes says it will be prioritizing negotiation over litigation. A briefing report shared with The Current by Sts’ailes explained that the Nation was looking at the now-signed 2022 Reconciliation Agreement “in the spirit of building relationships in collaboration over conflict.” It also noted that the agreement was meant to cement the partnership between the province and the Nation, and Sts’ailes had high expectations for “transformative change.”

This agreement isn’t the first collaboration between the province and Sts’ailes, however. In 2011, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding that largely focused on regulating the forestry and tourism industries on Sts’ailes land. More recently, in 2018, they signed a second agreement in which the province promised to “pursue opportunities” and “work toward improving collaboration” with Sts’ailes. (It also outlined changes to how BC’s archeology teams would work with the Nation and intentions to develop better wildfire communication.)

The new reconciliation agreement signed in February is offering more concrete action than that. The government has promised to give 167 hectares of land back to Sts’ailes, which will increase the size of the reserve by nearly 20%.

The parcel is located along the Chehalis River, which connects Chehalis Lake to the Harrison River. It’s smaller than what was identified in Sts’ailes’ 2020 annual report, and there are a number of conditions attached to the transfer—including working with other nations to make sure there are no conflicting territorial claims. But, if there are no other claims to the land, it should be transferred from the province to Sts’ailes within the next five years.

There is a recreation site on the land: the Chehalis River Campground off Morris Valley Road, which is already operated by a Sts’ailes company. The site was damaged in the November storms, and both the province and Sts’ailes will decide on who is responsible for repairing it before the property is transferred. Sts’ailes has said it intends to continue using it as a recreation site.

In the reconciliation agreement, which outlines the details for the land transfer, Sts’ailes agreed to suspend its litigation until at least 2027. It makes no mention of what could happen with the lawsuit after those five years.

📾 Grace Kennedy

The government may also return more of the Sts’ailes traditional territory in the future. A 278-hectare plot of land, called St’epsum, is a culturally significant and controversial area. In 2010, the province promised St’epsum, also known as 20 Mile Bay, to the In-SHUCK-ch Nation as part of its treaty process. Then-Sts’ailes Chief Willie Charlie spoke out against the proposed transfer, saying St’epsum was the heart of Sts’ailes territory. Elders had been buried there and Indigenous names had come from that place.

Ultimately, the province did not include St’epsum in In-SHUCK-ch’s treaty arrangement. But it’s not officially going to Sts’ailes either. The Reconciliation Agreement noted that “outstanding First Nation consultation issues remain” around St’epsum, and the province will be working to resolve those issues before making a decision on a future transfer. Instead, Sts’ailes will be working with the province to find private land within Sts’ailes territory that can be purchased for the Nation, up to a maximum value of $9 million. One private property that Sts’ailes identified as an option in the 2020 annual report was a 19-acre campground in Harrison Mills.

Two other properties that could be going to Sts’ailes in the future are owned by the federal government: Sasquatch Crossing and Lhawathet Lalem. The relatively small properties are located within the Chehalis River parcel that has been promised by the province. The provincial government has told Ottawa that it supports the land being given to Sts’ailes, and the federal government has said that it is in “early stage discussions” with Sts’ailes about a joint agreement.

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The reconciliation agreement will also see support for other projects. The province will be giving Sts’ailes $2.5 million to buy land for a new health care centre. That project has been in the works for more than a decade and. In the first 2011 agreement, the province promised to work with Sts’ailes to assess the feasibility of using land near the reserve for a health centre. The new money will finally make that a reality.

The health centre won’t be on the reserve, but in Harrison Mills, Chief Ralph Leon told The Current. The goal will be to provide health services for residents in Sts’ailes, Harrison Mills, Sq’Ă©wlets, Lake Errock, and other nearby communities. Leon said he was excited for the future of the health centre, but that there was still a lot of work ahead of the Nation and the province on all aspects of the agreement.

Additional funding will go to support Sts’ailes initiatives, including traditional land use mapping, a new program for environmental stewardship, and restorative justice programs. Long-range plans for the nation are also in the works: adopting a constitution for the nation, creating a “Tribal Park” within Sts’ailes territory, developing a “Grocery Store Project,” establishing a language revitalization plan, building a replica longhouse, and co-managing fisheries.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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